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Storytelling In The News: #152

Satirical storytelling flourishes in Barron's

May 17, 2004

Where's the best satirical storytelling today? You might consider The New Yorker or The Onion or Jay Leno or Dave Letterman or Andy Borowitz, and end up giving serious consideration to the staid pages of a right-wing businesss journal like Barron's. Today, for instance, Alan Abelson "does Iraq", and sheds sharp but clear-eyed view on the nature of leadership today and the values of our busines and political leaders.


Much as we'd love to, we can't take credit for that ingenious prescription for what ails you. In truth, it's the brainstorm of some political rocket scientist. The famous Karl Rove, perhaps. Whoever can lay claim to its conceptual origin, the notion of a quickie trip to Iraq has caught the fancy of any number of people in high places who also happen to be in a pickle.

The drill is simple. For openers, make sure there's plenty of room on the plane for reporters and cameramen, both of the TV and old-fashioned kind. (If necessary, commandeer an extra plane; might be better, anyway: You won't have to keep that smile pasted on your face the whole trip and you might even be able to relax with a bourbon or two.)

Once you land, pick a nice safe -- and let's emphasize safe -- spot, fill it with fresh-faced kids in uniform (and surround it with a couple of thousand guards rented from a private contractor), look jut-jawed determined (this may take a little cosmetic magic, especially if your jaw doesn't naturally jut), deliver some carefully prepared impromptu remarks, make sure the photographers are all happy, pretend to enjoy your hot dog and -- this is very important -- get out of there lickety-split when your hour's up.

The latest bigwig to try the Iraq solution, of course, was Donald Rumsfeld, the pugnacious and embattled secretary of defense. Mr. Rumsfeld prepared for the rigors of war-torn Iraq by spending six hours in close encounters with gaggles of congressmen and taking heaps of heat for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. After that horrid ordeal, Iraq seemed like paradise. Mr. Rumsfeld dutifully took his turn before the cameras, held a "town meeting" with cheering service folk where he enlisted Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in his cause (Gen. Grant, for some reason, wasn't called on to speak), inspected the scene of the crime, delivered himself of the usual bromides and then high-tailed it back to D.C.

Whether or not the photo-op cure works for Mr. Rumsfeld remains to be seen. But seeking redemption (i.e., better poll ratings) is becoming all the rage in the nation's capital these days, and what with this being an election year, the occasions for "doing Iraq" are bound to multiply. In fact, we wouldn't be enormously surprised were some enterprising airline to initiate shuttle flights to Baghdad (group rates available, needless to say). And we can assert, without fear of contradiction, Wall Street would prove a rich lode of business.

On this score, it puzzles us that someone as sharp and on the ball as Sandy Weill hasn't taken a leaf from Washington's book and months ago hustled off to Iraq, phalanxes of PR men and photographers in tow. Even the flintiest hearts might have melted at the sight of a smiling Sandy passing out faux Cuban cigars and thousand dollar bills to our troops. At the very least, it might have given the SEC pause, so that Citigroup might have had to pay only a billion -- $1.5 billion max -- in blood money to make amends to investors in WorldCom, instead of the $2.65 billion it forked over.

And, goodness knows how many billions more that kind of patriotic image burnishing would have saved in that mess of suits still to come.

We hate to admit it, but we're not up to speed on the legal status of Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Richard Scrushy and the rest of the rogues' roster. Specifically, we simply don't remember for sure who has been indicted and who's merely an indictee-in-waiting. But for those still eligible to travel outside these hallowed shores, we suggest it may not be too late to prepossess a jury in their favor by doing a one-hour stand in Iraq. Just make sure there are cameras nearby and, please, don't try to pay the photographers with Enron shares.

Why Wall Street seems to us a natural for the Iraq solution to any little problem it may have at the moment is that it's so much like Washington in so many ways. Both share a no-fault mentality. When the Pentagon screws up and you get Abu Ghraib, the hammer inevitably falls on some grunt who never should have been given the job of jail keeper in the first place. When a brokerage firm strays from the straight and narrow and is caught red-handed, its first move to appease the critics and, more importantly, the regulators, is to sacrifice up a clerk or ease out an analyst with a golden handshake (analysts may know enough to cost you; clerks, to their loss, usually don't).

In Washington and in Wall Street, the buck always stops way short of the brass.

We trust neither gent takes offense. But it strikes us that, just on attitude and the ease with which they shrug off woes that would completely floor lesser souls, Sandy Weill and Donald Rumsfeld could swap positions and neither of the great institutions they head would miss a beat. Might even be worth a try, if there's enough money left in the Treasury to assume Sandy's pension.

Bottom line

Despite the strong right-wing views of his newspaper, Abelson depicts a world out of kilter.

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